I distinctly remember being afraid of juvenile delinquency when I was, oh, say about five or six. Before I started kindergarten, I think. I recall seeing some news report about the rise of teenage gangs, and became apprehensive about setting foot in an elementary school for fear of being beaten up or threatened by big kids in leather jackets who carried switchblades - as seen in the news report. While I got through kindergarten without incident (save embarrassingly wetting my pants in class one day), I did have a couple of nasty encounters with big kids later on. "Big" being defined as, say, perhaps twelve or thirteen.
Let's see... when I was about seven or so, some kids - who happened to be black - grouped around and threatened me one day while I was playing in a supermarket parking lot. One held a switchblade (or was it really something else like a comb?) to my neck and threatened to "cut me open."
As I recall, the incident fell along the usual lines of predictable dialogue:
Big kid: You think you can beat me up?
Big kid: You want me to cut you open?
Big kid: You gonna tell the police on me if I let you go?
After terrorizing me for a while they got bored and left. Not surprisingly, I remembered that little encounter for the rest of my life. About a year or so later some big kids - who happened to be white - waylaid me while walking home from school and forced me to walk to their house where they let me go. I guess leading a little kid astray was that afternoon's sport. I was consequently about an hour late getting home. Mom demanded to know why, and I told her. She packed me into the car and angrily drove to the house, where she gave the big kid's trashy mother holy hell as only an angry, big-boned French-Canadian woman could.
Nowadays I'm fairly confident the school and the police would have gotten involved with what would probably be interpreted as a kidnapping incident.
All this took place in the Silverlake District of Los Angeles,
which was, in the early to mid-Sixties, declining (as they say). Nowadays the
area has become chic, except around where the supermarket parking lot was. I
visited the site, now a parking lot for a moving company, when I was last in
Anyway, it was the catalyst for Mom and Dad to move out to the San Fernando
Funny thing, though. I was nearly nine when we moved out of Silverlake in February, 1965. At that time I was a junior
member of a gang of older kids led by a twelve year-old; we had just become
engaged in petty crime (breaking windows, lighting match fires, trespassing,
etc.) and it makes me wonder how I would have turned out had we stayed in
Or not. After all, the mid-Sixties were considerably different than the late-Fifties/early-Sixties. Violence trended out and drug use trended in. Or at least that's the popular perception, I think.
Still, I must confess that, despite my early fear, gangs had a certain appeal to me. And as I enlisted in the Marines after high school, took up Civil War reenacting (where hobbyists form into regiments) after college and started playing rugby in my forties, perhaps it still does. Playing rugby, I observed that the pack mentality is quite strong in males, especially among the forwards who form the scrum. The forwards can be seen as a sort of goon squad within a goon squad. In rugby, the forwards are even broken up into the "Tight Five" (two props, two locks and a hooker) and loose forwards (the flankers and the eightman) - a goon squad within a goon squad within a goon squad! Perhaps it is this pack mentality, along with a desire for a surrogate family, that is the impetus behind the formation of gangs.
I recall being in a car with my friend Mike one evening; he had to pull out his tool kit to fix something or another. "Check this out!" he said, and he flipped open a switchblade. He had relieved it from an errant in-law who had problems with the law. My first instinctive thought was not, "What are you doing with that?" or "You'll get in trouble if the police find you with it in your car." It was "How COOL!" Despite the fact that by any standard I am a mature, middle-aged law-abiding good citizen and role model, I guess deep down inside there's a part of me that would like to be, look, dress, act or be thought of as a juvenile delinquent - or at least considered dangerous. How odd!